With daily reports of Muslim massacres, atrocities and acts of unthinkable evil, many Christians are concerned, but also confused, as to what our response to all this should be. Every day we see more barbaric beheadings, more suicide bombings and more acts of jihad.
The Islamic State (IS) is now leading the way here, but plenty of other Islamic groups can be mentioned. And as I have often noted, this is not extreme Islam in action – this is simply Islam in action. This is a political ideology and death cult bent on world domination – always has been, always will be.
But what are Christians to think of all this? This is certainly evil of the highest order, but how should such evil be resisted? Or are we even to think in terms of resisting evil? Some believers in the pacifist camp think that we can never directly resist evil, at least by use of force.
Even if a Christian is not a pacifist, he may be rather confused about what a right response might be. As an example, elsewhere a Christian shared one of my posts about Muslim children being given dolls and knives, so they can practice the fine art of beheading the infidel. (BTW, there is of course full Koranic justification for this practice. See sura 5:33, 8:12, and 47:4 for starters.)
This person reposted my picture of this, but then started getting flak for it, so he then moved into a defensive position: “How do you fight evil, the so called war on terror. For it is written that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
With many Christians confused about our role in resisting evil, this person, like many, appealed to a passage such as Ephesians 6:12 above, to highlight the spiritual nature of our battles. But is this all the Bible has to say about resisting evil? Is this the only response open for Christians?
No, not at all. What so many Christians do not realise is that God had ordained various institutions which we are to participate in, and which are meant to be utilised. He of course established the church for his people. But he also created the institution of the state to render justice and punish evil in a fallen world.
While there may be overlap at times between these two institutions, they are nonetheless separate entities, each with its own roles and responsibilities. For example, generally speaking, the church deals with sin and forgiveness, while the state deals with crime and punishment.
So in that sense the First Baptist Church on Main Street is not to engage in physical warfare, nor start fighting IS overseas. The state is allocated that job. It preserves the peace at home, and can at times promote justice overseas, as in just warfare, which is meant to check aggression and protect the innocent.
So the state most certainly has a role to play in dealing with evil, both domestic and international. The Pope recently reiterated standard church teaching on just war thought when he said that the use of force is justified here:
In a question-and-answer session with reporters returning with him from a five-day trip to South Korea, Francis was asked if he supported the U.S. air strikes authorized by Obama against ISIS. “In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” Francis said. “I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I’m not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ just ‘stop.’ And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated.” However, the Pope went on to say that such intervention should not be decided unilaterally, by one country.
So there is no moral problem at all for Christians to support the use of force by the state to resist evil at times. It was certainly the ethically correct thing to do when we sought to resist the evil of Hitler and the Nazis, and it may well be the right thing to do in order to stop IS.
Thus there is no need for Christians to fall back into a quasi-spiritual or quasi-pacifist position here, when other Christians get squeamish about such things. The case for just war theory has of course been argued for at least two and a half millennia, and cannot here be recounted.
But biblical Christians certainly do not oppose the use of all force, nor do they oppose all killing. Some killing is morally licit, as I argue in more detail elsewhere: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/11/is-it-ever-right-to-kill/
And there is even the place for self-defence, as I argue here: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/12/20/self-defence-and-scripture/
Thus while Baptists from Ohio or Perth may not take the law into their own hands, I think a valid case can be made for persecuted Christians living in Iraq or Syria or Nigeria to defend themselves, and to even take up arms to do so. And for those who might appeal to the words of Jesus about “turning the other cheek,” I have addressed those concerns elsewhere as well: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/04/20/difficult-bible-passages-matthew-539/
While Christians can and do disagree on some of these matters, the great bulk of Christians throughout the last 2000 years have supported the concept of just war and have recognised the legitimate role of the state to resist evil. With evil in the form of IS taking on monstrous proportions, now is not the time to cave into moral and mental mushiness about this.
If an individual believer wants to be pacifist, that is fine, but he dare not criticise those who believe we have a moral and a biblical obligation to protect the innocent and see to it that a modicum of justice in a sinful world is maintained. For more on this general issue, see here: billmuehlenberg.com/2009/07/14/muddled-thinking-on-war-peace-and-justice/
The horrific persecution of Christians taking place right now at the hands of IS and other Islamic groups is at the very least something which all of us should be praying about. And yes of course, spiritual warfare is necessary here, as this is at root a spiritual conflict.
But it is also a very real battle being fought in a very real world, and the use of force in resisting evil has its place – even in the Christian worldview.